If you imagined the typical Jewish physique, bodybuilder is probably not what would come to mind. In pop culture, Jews are skinny and bespectacled like Woody Allen, or chubby and unshaven like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Sometimes the rare tough and rugged Israeli shows up, fighting terror and being macho. But big, buff and tan — that’s something you rarely see. So how did a nice Jewish girl end up becoming a champion in the sport of hulking supermen like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronnie Coleman?
In Erin Stern’s case, it all started with three centimeters.
Three centimeters is not a long distance to travel. It’s barely more than an inch. Take one footstep and you’d blow right by it. But for Stern, the three centimeters she couldn’t travel changed her life forever.
A Junior All-American at the University of Florida, Stern had been competing in events like the pentathlon and heptathlon since high school. Her high-jump numbers were good enough that she set her sights on the Beijing Olympics. All that stood between her and the team trials were a few short centimeters. She kicked her training into overdrive, and her numbers improved, but she was falling just shy of what she needed.
“I’m a little short for a high-jumper,” says the statuesque 5-foot-8 Stern, chuckling. “I gave it my all, but I couldn’t make the last three centimeters.”
Dejected, Stern was forced to give up on Olympic high jumping.
“I was extremely bummed,” she said.
By rights, Stern’s athletic journey should have ended there, three centimeters short of glory. She had a promising career in real estate to fall back on, and her college years were over. It was time for a transition. But she’d been a track star for so long that it felt weird to have no focus, no goal to reach for. That’s when a friend suggested she try competing in Figure competitions.
Stern grew up in a family of athletes. “My father played football at C.W. Post and Adelphi University, and my mother would run three miles a day,” she says.
She started riding horses in competitions at a young age and later developed a passion for running, just like her mother, which led her to her track career.
Stern was raised in a Jewish household. She attended religious school and had her bat mitzvah during Passover.
“I’ll never forget having to read the long haftarah,” she said. “ I had to do the service all in Hebrew. My sister was lucky — by the time her bat mitzvah rolled around, we’d joined the Reform temple, and she got to do a lot of the prayers in English.”
Erin Stern’s Fitness Tips
Starting your own journey toward becoming a fitter Jew isn’t as hard as training for a contest like the Olympia. 2010 Figure Olympia champ Erin Stern offers a few simple changes you can make to get yourself on the road to a healthier life today.
“The No. 1 rule is don’t make excuses. People always make excuses for why it’s too hard to work out or take time to be healthier. I suggest making appointments for fitness, just like you would for a business meeting or a lunch with a friend. Make an appointment to walk or lift some weights. That way, there’s no excuse not to have the time.”
“Another thing I like to follow is the 90/10 rule — eat well 90 percent of the time so you can enjoy yourself the other 10 percent. Don’t deny yourself that nice cheat meal on Saturday night; eat right the rest of the week and you can have it with no guilt.”
“Eat five meals a day. You should have breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus two snacks in between. Snacking is really important in terms of controlling your insulin spikes. If you have two healthy snacks in between meals — almonds, an apple, string cheese, Greek yogurt or veggies — you won’t get to the point where you’re so hungry you overeat.”
“Work out with a friend; it makes you accountable. You’re less likely to skip that after-work trip to the gym if you know your friend is there waiting for you and counting on you.”
“Pick a class that fits you — there are so many on the market these days, from yoga to spinning to pole dancing to Krav Maga. There’s a class out there for every fitness level and every taste, so find one that speaks to you.”
“If you’re training for a contest, or just want to keep track of your weight loss, take progress pictures. You see your body every day, so it’s hard to notice changes. If you take a picture in the same outfit, in the same spot, once every week, you’ll be able to notice the changes you’re making much easier.”
Stern’s last piece of advice for people looking to live healthier: “Start now. Don’t wait for the new year. Set your goals, print them out, hang them on your wall, and make a plan to get fitter and healthier today.”
Her parents stressed both Judaism and athletics as important pursuits.
“Everything is connected,” Stern said. “It’s important for us to take care of ourselves physically, spiritually and mentally.”
And while some of Stern’s impressively chiseled physique can be attributed to genetics and to the prodding of her parents, it took a lot of hours in the gym to build a body worthy of taking the stage in a Figure competition.
Figure competitions are a spinoff of bodybuilding. Introduced a decade ago, Figure emphasizes muscle tone and shape over the big, bulky physiques of bodybuilding. Beauty also factors in.
“It’s like a pageant with muscles,” Stern said, laughing, perhaps at the slight absurdity of a haircut factoring in after months of grueling training.
At a friend’s prodding, in 2008 Stern decided to enter a National Physique Committee (NPC) Figure show to try her luck.
“I didn’t prepare much for my first contest. I had watched some YouTube videos, so I knew what to expect, but I was very nervous. I felt at home on the track, not on the stage,” she said.
Stern’s worries were for naught. She won the show and found herself on a whole new athletic path.
Stern may be the most successful Jew in the history of the sport, but she’s not the first. Dan Lurie was a five-time runner-up for the Mr. America title back in the 1940s. Mike Katz was featured alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the classic bodybuilding film “Pumping Iron,” but he never placed better than fourth at the Mr. Olympia competition. The Olympia itself was founded in 1965 by Joe Weider, a bodybuilder and entrepreneur who along with his younger brother, Ben, grew up a poor Jewish kid in New York’s Lower East Side. With just $7, Weider founded the publishing empire that would later grow to include Shape, Men’s Fitness and Flex magazines. Held in various cities for most of its first three decades of existence, the Olympia has been staged in Las Vegas since 1999.
Stern made her Olympia debut in 2009 and was named Rookie of the Year after placing sixth. She returned home to Florida, ready to get in even better shape for the next year. Stern refers to her method of training as F.A.S.T.
“It stands for Functionally Aesthetic Strength Training,” she said. “I’m probably the only Figure girl who trains like I train. I don’t have a trainer or a dietitian.”
Stern’s unusual training methods are a big reason for her fast climb up the ranks in the sport. By the time the next Olympia rolled around, Stern was ready to go for the title.
“The whole week going into the show is tough. You’re dialing it in,” she said. “You’re focusing on your diet. You cut out all the salt because you don’t want to retain water. I visualized the win in my mind. I’d go through my poses at home, practice how I’d walk out on stage.”
On the day of the show, Stern paraded onto the stage with the other competitors. Her biggest competition was Nicole Wilkins-Lee, a button-nosed blonde from Michigan who’d captured the Olympia title the previous year.
During the preliminary round of the show, Stern and Wilkins-Lee were called out together in a tiny group of two to pose for the judges. That’s when Stern knew she was “either in first or second place” on the judges’ cards. Unfortunately, she’d have to wait until the next day to find out whether she was a winner or a runner-up.
After avoiding the urge to snack during the next 24 hours, Stern waited nervously on the finals stage as the runners-up were announced. Eventually, it came down to her and Wilkins-Lee. The bright lights shone down on Stern’s spray-tanned face as she awaited her fate, her body full of nerves, a little like when she had her bat mitzvah years before.
Stern’s nerves were short-lived. The judges announced the first runner-up: Nicole Wilkins-Lee. “I thought I was going to cry tears of joy and faint at the same time. It was just like I’d dreamed,” Stern recalled. She was presented with a “big plastic check” for $28,000. “It’s just like what the men get, except without an extra zero at the end,” Stern joked, referencing the $200,000 prize this year’s Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler, walked away with. But the money didn’t matter to Stern — it was the feeling of joy at winning a title, of accomplishing her goal, of making it those last few centimeters.
Since her win, Stern’s been very busy enjoying her newfound fame. She’s graced the covers of magazines like Oxygen and expanded her online training business to help women from around the world build better bodies. She’s traveled to expos across the country to make appearances, and she’ll be in Los Angeles at L.A.’s Fit Expo in January.
Stern is looking forward to getting more involved in the business side of fitness. “I don’t want to compete forever,” she said. She’s more interested in inspiring others and in encouraging people to live healthy lifestyles. And maybe she’ll encourage other Jewish women to take more control of their health and to pick up some weights. Young Jewish women may not decide that bodybuilding is for them, but Stern is a shining example of how being a buff Jew is no longer an oxymoron.